Artist Joseph Jeffers “Jerry” Dodge “was a pioneer in the cultural growth in Jacksonville,” says Debra Murphy, chair of the Department of Art and Design at the University of North Florida and author of the 2002 book “Passion and Clarity: The Art of Joseph Jeffers Dodge.”
Now, more than 20 years after his death at the age of 79, Dodge’s paintings will be on display at the UNF Gallery of Art, opening Monday, five days after what would have been Dodge’s 100th birthday.
“He brought culture and class to our town and nurtured the Cummer Gallery through its first 10 years,” the late Taylor Hardwick, a close friend, told the Times-Union at the time of Dodge’s death. “In addition to being a superlative and prolific painter, this erudite man was a connoisseur of all the arts and supported them with his patronage.”
Dodge, who graduated from Harvard University with a degree in fine arts in 1940, spent the first two decades of his career as curator for the Hyde Collection on the Hudson River in Glens Falls, N.Y. In 1962 he was hired to serve as director of the new museum now known as the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens.
Dodge spent the next ten years running the Cummer and is credited with tripling the museum’s holdings by making an estimated 1,200 acquisitions. They included the Wark Meissen Collection, considered one of the most important porcelain collections in the world, and the celebrated William Bouguereau painting, “Return from the Harvest.”
Dodge stepped down in 1972 and spent the last 25 years of his life concentrating on his painting, something he had been doing since childhood. In his youth Dodge had experimented with styles including surrealism. But from the 1950s on he was known for his realism. He carried cameras with him to photograph the landscapes he regularly painted.
Still, he was “prickly about being called a photorealist,” Murphy said.
Although he came of age during “the real heyday of abstract expressionism,” he was a “classical artist creating classical nudes, classical still lifes and classical landscapes,” Murphy said.
His work was “informed by years of studying art and its masters,” she said. “He really is heir to a great and distinguished classical tradition in the manner of the French painters Poussin and Corot.”
Murphy said there will be about 40 of Dodge’s paintings in the UNF exhibit. Many are borrowed from the Cummer, to which Dodge donated 40 of his own works a few months before his death.
In addition to helping spread awareness of the arts and helping raise “the level of cultural accessibility” in Jacksonville, Dodge was also a progressive on race at a time when Jacksonville was still a highly segregated city, Murphy said. His 1962 arrival came just two years after Ax Handle Saturday, during which a group of young blacks attempting to sit at a whites-only downtown lunch counter were attacked by an angry mob wielding ax handles.
“He was very disturbed by racism,” Murphy said.
That was reflected in his painting “Black and Blue.” The title comes from the last line lines of a blues song by Thomas “Fats” Waller: “My only sin is the color of my skin. That’s why I’m so back and blue.”
Dodge would have known the song because it was recorded by Duke Ellington and his orchestra in 1929 and Dodge was ardent fan and personal friend of Ellington, Murphy said.
When Murphy was preparing to nominate Dodge for an award from what was then the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville (now the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville), she solicited quotes from many people. U.S. Rep. Charlie Bennett wrote that Dodge “brought art and culture to Jacksonville at a difficult time.”
Dodge was fond of quoting Seneca’s observation, “Ars longa, vita brevis,” Murphy said
That translates to “Life is short but art endures.”
“But he didn’t think of himself as any towering genius,” she said. “He knew his career would only be a footnote.”
But, as the UNF exhibit will illustrate, it was a vivid and colorful footnote.
Charlie Patton: (904) 359-4413